It feels like a Saturday matinee, but with no popcorn, here at the Liberty Film Festival as the villains appear on the big screen to hoots and whoops.
U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix: "Booooo." Former ambassador and CIA spouse Joe Wilson: "Traitor!" Al Gore: "Uggggh." And the scariest size XXXL boogeyman of all, Michael Moore, whose every appearance sets this partisan crowd into hissing fits.
Billed as the first conservative film festival in Hollywood, the three-day affair showcased comic shorts, one about the "ultimate minority" in Tinseltown ("Greg Wolfe: Republican Jew"), an epic homage to Ronald Reagan and his battle against Soviet communism ("In the Face of Evil") and a snappy doc on tart-tongued commentator Ann Coulter ("Is It True What They Say About Ann?"), in which Coulter signs the T-shirt of a leftie college student with the words "Have fun in Guantanamo!"
But there is a law in physics that for every action there is a reaction, and the Liberty Film Festival played out like an anguished and earnest rebuttal to the fantabulous success (and, according to these conservative filmmakers, lies) of Michael Moore and his ($200 million in international box office and climbing) anti-Bush assault "Fahrenheit 9/11."
Moore played a starring role as the bad-boy pinata in four of the documentaries screened to several hundred attendees: In "Michael Moore Hates America," described by filmmaker Mike Wilson as his "devastating expose of real people exploited by Moore to make a buck." In "Celsius 41.11," or "the temperature at which the brain begins to die," directed by David Bossie of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. In talk show host Larry Elder's "Michael & Me," about the benefits of gun ownership. And finally, in "Confronting Iraq" by Roger Aronoff of the group Accuracy in Media, which used a PowerPoint-like construction in its attempt to deflate Moore and "the bitter left" peaceniks and the "cut and run" presidential candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry.
The festival was organized by a husband-wife duo of young filmmakers, Jason Apuzzo and Govindini Murty, and underwritten by the Foundation for Free Markets, which likes privatizing Social Security, cutting taxes and issuing school vouchers. The foundation's leader, Paul Harberger, applauded the "courage and conviction" of Apuzzo and Murty and announced the birth of conservative film as "the frontlines in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people."
Murty, an aspiring actress, says the impetus was, in part, the cool reception she and her husband have received in Hollywood for their own screenplays and their film "Terminal Island," which premiered at the festival.
Based on audience reaction, their film was one of the weaker entries -- a low-budget, digital, black-and-white noir about a ditzy heroine (played by Murty) who is pursued through the port of Los Angeles by a hooded Muslim terrorist. The latter in one scene threatens to kill the gun-dealing "Omar," who begs for his life stating, "I'm a liberal. I'm your friend. I'm here to help you."
So you get the point of view.
Murty says Hollywood is infested by liberal goo-goos who despise "mainstream American values" and refuse to give over their studio budgets to films from the conservative perspective, "the family-friendly fare for middle America." As evidence of liberal bias, she points to "Day After Tomorrow" about global warming, "The Manchurian Candidate" and Moore, but does not address the three highest-grossing films of the year, about a lovable ogre, a boy wizard and a Spider-Man.
"We don't have the money or the power," Murty says, "but the festival is a way to get our work before the public." She says the movie industry is afraid to make films that portray the real villains in the war on terrorism, the radical Islamists. Says her husband Apuzzo: "Now it's the Hollywood liberal aristocracy that's grown old and abandoned art for endless political propaganda."
Well, call it what you will. Moore and his challengers produce advocacy journalism, or personal artist statements, or propaganda. Fair and balanced, it is not. What has clearly come is a return, with zeal, of the culture wars on another front, on DVDs and in movie houses. This season has seen an explosion of advocacy films from both left ("Bush's Brain," the Robert Greenwald series, etc.) and right ("George W. Bush: Faith in the White House" and the Liberty Festival entries, etc.).
The film festival that might be really informative would be to run all these competing films together. (Or as a series on PBS?) But maybe that is not the point.
The message of Hollywood's liberal bias was not universally embraced by attendees. Victor Elizalde, a Sony Pictures executive who is running as a Republican challenger against Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), appeared on the panel "Conservative Filmmaking 101" and sought to explain that what makes Hollywood run is not so much ideology as money.
In the lobby afterward, Elizalde said he smelled the distinct whiff of "victimology" among the audience. "We have a saying in our house, that to blame is lame," he said. "Is there an absence of films with a conservative message? No, there is not." Hollywood, he stresses, "is a business. That is lesson number one."
And the marketplace can be a cruel mistress. After each film here was screened, its maker did a Q and A with the audience that always included the questions, "Is the movie going to be released in theaters?" and/or "Where can we get the DVDs?" The answers were "We're trying."
After "Celsius," its producer -- Lionel Chetwynd, a successful made-for-TV movie mogul -- pointed out that his $150,000 film would cost another $350,000 to get into theaters and there were only 28 days until the election and "We don't have any George Soros on our side," referring to the billionaire investor and supporter of liberal causes (though he could have mentioned other CEOs, such Bill Gates, a Bush supporter).
Anyway, the audience was upset that the film "Celsius," which they believed forcefully confronted Moore and supported Bush, was without a venue (it can be ordered through the Citizens United Web site).
"Lionel, God bless you," an attendee began, then asked, "Can Fox air it?" Chetwynd said, alas, probably not, because of election finance laws and the FCC. Someone else suggested sending it to every Young Republican Club in America. "What about Arnold?" asked another, thinking maybe the California governor and millionaire film star could pony up as underwriter. "There's a lot of rich Republicans," said another. Or how about the Trinity Broadcast Network, the Christian station? Chetwynd said he'd make a few calls, but no promises.
Ultimately, it will be up to the film critics to measure the artistic or commercial quality of these movies, and up to the audiences who get to see them, to separate baloney from bread.
"What a pleasure to see it with an audience that laughed," said filmmaker Patrick Wright of his documentary on Ann Coulter, which was first screened at a Maryland filmfest where the audience was more hostile to the film's subject.
Ron Smith, an activist with the conservative Web site Freerepublic.com, sat for the whole festival in the front row. "I'll give this to Michael Moore," he says. "He created a chain reaction. We have to thank him for that." He agreed that the anti-Moore, pro-Bush films were slow out of the gates, "but I'll tell you, this is just the beginning. We've got the Internet and talk radio and now we've got films. This is just a dry run. It'll be better next time around."
For more information on the films screened, go to www.libertyfilmfestival.com.